Universities pull plug on Hong Kong stints for students on MOE advice

PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Singapore's education ministry has advised the city state's six government-funded universities to postpone all trips to Hong Kong, with the institutions immediately pulling the plug on student exchange programmes due to begin next month.

The ministry told This Week in Asia its guidance to the institutions covered student and staff trips, including "visits, exchanges and internships", and was issued last Friday after Singapore's ministry of foreign affairs updated its travel advisory for Hong Kong.

The travel advisory suggested that Singaporeans defer non-essential travel to Hong Kong, which has for the past two months been roiled by increasingly violent anti-government protests.

While protests last weekend did not end with police firing tear gas, countries including the United States and Australia have maintained travel alerts warning citizens of the risk of violent confrontations in Hong Kong.

No other governments are known to have issued notices advising university staff and students to avoid the city for the time being, though students from other countries had also pulled out of exchange programmes, according to feedback from three of the eight publicly-funded universities in Hong Kong.

The education ministry has been asked if it was the first time it had advised universities to axe overseas programmes over safety concerns.

The National University of Singapore had 56 students expected to spend a semester in Hong Kong. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

More than 100 students from four universities - 56 from the National University of Singapore (NUS), 41 from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), 17 from Singapore Management University (SMU) and eight from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) - were expected to spend the first semester of the 2019/2020 academic year in Hong Kong.

The universities said they were now helping students with insurance claims and refunds for their cancelled trips, and would help them enrol in courses for the current semester and identify other exchange programmes for the second semester.

Singapore Management University said six of the seven students who had signed up for summer internships in Hong Kong had returned home as of last weekend, while the remaining student would do so by the end of the month.

The remaining two universities - Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Social Sciences - have been approached for comment.

Mark Lim, 24, was among the NTU students set to spend four months in Hong Kong. He booked his flight two months ago and had paid for his accommodation at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's (HKUST) Clear Water Bay campus.

The cancellation had left him disappointed, the chemistry undergraduate said. "I was looking forward to eating the food Hong Kong has to offer … but I know the decision the school made is for our well-being."

A 24-year-old accountancy student from NTU who only wanted to be known by his last name, Tan, said family members were relieved he would not be heading to Hong Kong this Sunday for his exchange programme.

"My parents were quite worried, especially my father. He is not the kind that reads news but for the past few weeks, he has progressively started to watch more news to get updated with the Hong Kong protests."

UNIVERSITIES REPORT OTHER CANCELLATIONS

Five of the eight publicly-funded universities in Hong Kong - HKUST, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Polytechnic University and City University - said they were aware of Singapore universities withdrawing their exchange students.

HKUST and CUHK said other international students had individually informed them of plans to pull out of the coming semester's exchange programmes. They did not specify where these students were from, but a sixth university, Education University said it had received "enquiries" from mainland Chinese and Taiwan students, "with some of them indicating that they will not come to Hong Kong for exchange study in the new semester as planned".

CUHK said students that had contacted them about withdrawal plans "include Singaporean students whose universities have been advised to postpone exchange programmes to Hong Kong by the Singapore government".

HKUST said students from Singapore usually accounted for 7 per cent of the total pool of exchange students.

"Separately, HKUST also received notices from individual international students who applied for HKUST's exchange programmes, that they decided to cancel their exchange plans," a spokesperson said.

HKU said between 20 and 30 students from Singapore came to its campus on exchange programmes every year and despite them not doing so in the coming semester, it had not seen a significant change in the number of international students pulling out from exchange programmes.

Polytechnic University said about 20 students from Singapore withdrew from exchange programmes, and "the total dropout rate, due to various reasons, is similar to that in previous years".

City University did not give specific details on student withdrawals but said: "Teaching and research facilities on campus and student hostels and operating as usual. They have not been affected by recent events."

Lingnan University said it had no Singapore students in its exchange programme and no other institutions had cancelled student exchanges. Baptist University would only say its student exchange programmes were "operating as planned".

A MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR LEARNING?

The Singapore universities' move may have dispelled fears among parents, but Woo Jun-jie, an assistant professor at Education University, felt that institutions could have advised students on avoiding protest sites instead of carrying out a complete suspension.

Describing the move as "pre-emptive", Woo, who was previously from NTU, explained that the situation in Hong Kong "has not deteriorated to the point where personal safety is affected".

Woo added that the ongoing protests could also serve as a "valuable learning opportunity" for students.

"Direct exposure to this diverse array of opinions in Hong Kong can also help these young men and women achieve a certain level of intellectual maturity," Woo said.

"What is happening in Hong Kong presents students of the social sciences with a 'natural experiment' for understanding how deep-rooted social divisions can fester and give rise to conflict," he said.

The education ministry, in its guidance note, told universities to monitor the situation in Hong Kong and "take reference from the latest updates" to the foreign ministry's travel advisory. NUS for one said it would assess the situation and review its plans for student exchanges in the second semester, which starts in January next year.

While the guidance note did not cover polytechnics, which offer pre-university courses, at least one school asked its students on internships in Hong Kong to cut short their travel.

Nicole Ang, a 19-year-old Ngee Ann Polytechnic student, said she flew back to Singapore on August 10, slightly more than a month before her internship was expected to end.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic declined to comment but This Week In Asia understands the next batch of students slated to start their Hong Kong internship in September have been told the programme is currently suspended.

Ang said that she, along with four other students, wanted to stay in Hong Kong until September to complete their internship, but after repeated attempts by the school asking them to return, they finally budged.

"Our supervisor told us that the situation in Hong Kong was worrying the school back in Singapore. He said he would inform our parents and book the earliest flight back for us," said Ang, who majors in business and social enterprise.

"We eventually agreed [to fly back]. Our company was quite shocked but they understood our predicament."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES